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Suncor defers Montreal refinery project to focus on low cost oilsands expansions

Suncor Energy Inc.’s on-again, off-again plan to add a coker unit to its Montreal refinery to allow it to process heavier barrels of oil, including oilsands bitumen, is off the table as it shuffles its spending priorities.

The $2-billion project has been shelved as the company focuses on low-cost oilsands expansions, projects that will help reduce emissions and cost-cutting digital technologies, CEO Mark Little said on a conference call to discuss fourth-quarter results.

Little said the company is listening to investors as it aims to generate more free cash flow while keeping spending in check.

“Some of the concern we see from the investors is, ‘Wow, you’re going to plow $2 billion into Montreal, are you sure?’,” he said.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about that and running all the analysis and concluded that actually wasn’t the prudent investment for the shareholder.”

Suncor also elected to defer sanctioning of its proposed 40,000-barrel-per-day Meadow Creek oilsands project, which would produce bitumen from wells, until 2023 at the earliest, Little said.

Instead, it will invest in boosting production from its existing similar Firebag facility to nameplate capacity of 203,000 bpd by 2021 and then potentially add 20,000-30,000 bpd by 2024-25.

It also plans to build lower-emission co-generation units at its Base Plant this year and begin construction of a $300-million wind power project in southern Alberta.

The Calgary-based energy giant reported a net loss of $2.3 billion for quarter ended Dec. 31 due mainly to asset impairment charges of $3.3 billion.

That includes $2.8 billion due to lower forecast prices for heavy oil from its Fort Hills oilsands mine in northern Alberta and $393 million linked to higher capital cost estimates for the West White Rose expansion project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is expected to begin producing oil in 2022.

Husky Energy Inc., which is the major owner and operator of the White Rose field, said its numbers align with those of Suncor.

“As indicated last year, we had some initial challenges with productivity at West White Rose, and we are now seeing good execution and are on track,” said Husky spokeswoman Kim Guttormson, who declined to give a detailed cost estimate for the expansion.

Suncor said it expects its share of production from the White Rose field will average about 8,700 bpd over its life and its share of future capital expenditures is about $1.4 billion.

Suncor shares fell by as much as 4.6% in early trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange, although it announced an 11% increase in its quarterly dividend and a $2-billion extension of its program to buy back shares.

Analysts said its production results were generally in line, but misses on its operating and capital costs in the quarter were slightly negative.

Little also announced Suncor will file an application in the current quarter for a project to extend its base oilsands mine to a new area when its current resource is depleted in about 2035.

The project represents one of many options and wouldn’t be officially approved for at least a decade, he stressed.

“We feel that filing in 2020 is prudent under the current regulatory process, including the effects of the new (federal) assessment act, to ensure adequate time is provided for the regulatory process,” he said.

“Should we choose to extend the mine, the plan is to incorporate non-aqueous extraction technology which significantly reduces the costs and environmental impacts of mining oilsands versus our current operations.”

Suncor reported its MacKay River oilsands project, which produces about 30,000 bpd from wells, was shut down following an operational problem in December and is not expected back to be back on line until after March.

The outage won’t affect 2020 guidance for the company, Little said, because the loss of barrels can be counted under Alberta’s ongoing oil production curtailment program.